Barbara Jacques is a career woman, a wife, a mother. She puts in long hours in the field of design and then she goes home to her family where there is more work to be done. She aches to paint full time, she dreams all week of the large surface of the canvas that has been prepared the previous week with numerous and sleek coasts of gesso, waiting for her to come into her Montreal studio to be worked on. And when she arrives on Friday, the only day that she has reserved exclusively for her work, she can’t just ‘start’ painting… There is a process that must be undertaken before she can take the brush and take it to the canvas. She needs the morning to prepare herself. She needs silence, quiet, reflection. She needs to put herself into the state of mind where she will be able to take the brush and let it quickly go onto the canvas with no hesitation.
She tells me she wishes she could paint everyday. I ask her if perhaps, the buildup, the tension that intensifies during the week as every day gets closer to Friday doesn’t create the perfect storm for that decisive moment on the canvas. ‘Perhaps’ she answers.
The work itself is stark, simple, elementary. There is no excess. Only monochromatic black oil painted onto the white surface. She says her work is ‘an homage to our animality, to nature as the grand theatre of the world’s suffering.’
Two bodies of work emerge. Series of animal portraits; vultures, apes, snakes amidst the chaos and destruction of bombed out streets representing Syria and inspired by her trip to Iraq in 2016 for an NGO. Both reflect on ‘our vulnerability and the decay of our human existence, to its fragile splendor.’ There is other work in the studio, experiments in burning lemons and baguettes to create charred remains that bring us back to the idea of decay. Ashes to ashes… dust to dust…. The large scale portraits of the war ravaged streets, empty of all people, are overwhelming. The grid like repetition of the vulture and ape portraits are striking in the single-mindedness of the brushstroke but the entire series on the wall of the studio take on a monumental aspect, bringing the individual into the collective.
Barbara Jacques faces the dilemma of many mid-career artists that have to work to make a living. Artistic freedom comes with a price, usually having to struggle financially but having a job that brings financial stability also means having to deal with having limited time to devote to personal projects. When I look at Barbara’s work, I imagine it in a museum because of the universal themes that her work explores and its monumental aspect. The four walls of her studio can hardly contain the message that life is fragile, transitory, both tragic and splendid.
Written and photographed by Kathleen Finlay